The Enduring Influence of Fannie Lou Hamer, Civil Rights Advocate

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Fannie Lou Hamer, photographed in 1971. “Is this America,” she once asked, “the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Credit...Tyrone Dukes
Oct. 5, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer
By Kate Clifford Larson

Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America
By Keisha N. Blain

On Aug. 22, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer, a Black sharecropper from Mississippi, took her place before the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. She was there to challenge her home state’s attempt to seat an all-white delegation. On that sweltering day, in front of television cameras, Hamer proceeded to recount her efforts to register to vote in a state that historically had denied Black citizens the right to do so.

Almost two years before, she said, she had journeyed 26 miles by bus to a distant courthouse to take the state’s required literacy test. Afterward, she and the group of Black citizens she was traveling with were detained by the police — an apparent attempt to intimidate them — and when she arrived home, she found that her white landlord, incensed over her determination to register, was evicting her from the farm where she worked. The following June, she went on, as she returned from a voter registration workshop, authorities in Winona, Miss., arrested her and her traveling companions. Hamer told the credentials committee of being restrained, beaten with a blackjack and sexually assaulted by the police. “Is this America,” she asked boldly, “the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

While Hamer’s plea to seat Black delegates from her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party failed, she succeeded in imprinting on the American consciousness a vivid image of the viciousness of white Southern racism. After the convention, she returned to Mississippi to continue her fight to register Black Americans as well as to battle against all forms of discrimination. Plain-spoken, with only a sixth-grade education, Hamer was charismatic and a brilliant grass-roots organizer. Over time, she successfully pushed Mississippi to open up voting to Black people, transforming local, state and national politics, a process made a little easier after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Nonetheless, Hamer remains largely unacknowledged in popular narratives of the civil rights movement, which still train most of the spotlight on its male leaders. But those men, including Martin Luther King Jr., were affected by Hamer’s presence in that long fight. Now two different yet complementary books, “Walk With Me,” by the historian Kate Clifford Larson, and “Until I Am Free,” by the historian Keisha N. Blain, seek to restore Hamer to her proper place in history by contextualizing her life within the larger struggle for equality and social justice.

Larson, a visiting scholar at Brandeis’s Women’s Studies Research Center, draws from pathbreaking research on Hamer, including books by Kay Mills, Chana Kai Lee, Earnest Bracey and Maegan Parker Brooks, as well as oral histories and newly available census records and digitized newspapers, to offer an inspired account of Hamer’s contributions. “Walk With Me” is a gripping and skillfully researched political biography that embeds Hamer’s personal history within a compelling account of the post-World War II civil rights movement.

The youngest of 20 children, Hamer was born into a profoundly religious and deeply impoverished sharecropping family. Influenced by her courageous mother and hellfire Baptist preacher father, she gradually embraced political activism. Larson asserts that Hamer’s transformation began when she learned that a local white physician (an in-law of her landlord) had, without her consent, subjected her to an unnecessary hysterectomy while she was under sedation. Her rage at being robbed of control over her body eventually evolved into an unwavering determination to liberate Black people.

Hamer claimed she was introduced to the freedom movement at a voting rights meeting held by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at her church in 1962. She insisted she was thunderstruck to learn that she too had the right to vote. Larson notes that Hamer was already active in her local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But Hamer was drawn to SNCC’s focus on empowering local leaders and their campaigns, and its rejection of the top-down leadership model of the N.A.A.C.P. and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In SNCC, Hamer found the support she needed to organize grass-roots campaigns.

Soon Hamer, who supported nonviolent direct action, began conducting workshops on voter registration and citizenship education. She became a popular figure within SNCC, revered for her impassioned speeches and unforgettable renditions of gospel songs at marches and rallies. These experiences led her to help launch the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and to run (unsuccessfully) for Congress.

In 1966, SNCC’s integrationist leadership (which Hamer supported) was displaced by Black nationalist members. This change triggered the group’s decline and drained much needed external support from Hamer’s local crusades. While she served as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention, participated in organizing the National Women’s Political Caucus and attempted to tackle poverty by establishing a farming cooperative in western Mississippi, she couldn’t recapture the momentum she needed to propel her expansive agenda. Larson closes with Hamer’s funeral in 1977. In his eulogy, John Lewis, then just embarking on his career in government, urged the crowd to remember that Hamer “taught us never to forget the brothers and sisters that are left behind.”

It is Lewis’s admonition that Keisha N. Blain, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, makes central in her riveting and timely exploration of Hamer’s life. In “Until I Am Free,” Blain asks us to revisit the activist’s achievements through the lens of the current civil rights movement. She argues that Hamer pioneered an approach to fighting racism, sexism and class discrimination that is relevant today.

Blain opens her book with a discussion of Hamer’s early involvement with SNCC. Convinced that God had called her to the battle for equality, Hamer fused democratic values with her faith in Christian redemption and emerged as a “practical theologian” who understood that direct action could bring change. She believed that grass-roots freedom fighters were as well equipped to reform local communities as the movement’s elite national and college-educated leaders.

Blain begins each subsequent chapter with a poignant meditation on an episode drawn from the current fight for justice and equality, using them to shine a new light on Hamer’s legacy. Sandra Bland’s death in police custody in 2015 becomes a gateway to understanding Hamer’s crusade against police brutality and violence at the hands of state authorities. The social media pressure to address Breonna Taylor’s death echoes Hamer’s use of television and news coverage to document white racism and its cruel violation of Black Americans’ constitutional rights.

Megan Thee Stallion’s protest against racism and sexism, which she distilled in an opinion essay in The New York Times, recalls one of Hamer’s most prescient contributions: her ideas about how racial, gender and class prejudices converge to intensify the oppression of Black women. Hamer, Blain asserts, possessed an awareness of what we now call intersectionality — the notion that our identities are composed of many different factors. Hamer’s forward thinking is also on display in a chapter discussing the expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide and her conviction that the American freedom struggle was part of a larger global fight by oppressed peoples for human rights. The current Poor People’s Campaign, Blain acknowledges, can be traced directly back to Martin Luther King Jr. But she points out that it also owes a debt to Hamer, who viewed poverty as a moral, not political, issue. Brilliantly constructed to be both forward and backward looking, Blain’s book functions simultaneously as a much needed history lesson and an indispensable guide for modern activists.

At this juncture in history, Hamer’s vision of a more equal union appears to be in jeopardy, as an increasing number of states pass laws designed to make voting harder. But Blain and Lawson remind us that the past offers encouraging lessons for the present and that Hamer’s legacy must not be ignored.

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